2 MINUTE RANT: Jennifer Lawrence, liberty, and victim blaming

People get so confused about what freedom means. The leaked photos of naked celebrities (including, most famously, Jennifer Lawrence) is one of those stories that exemplifies so perfectly that double standard – although it’s far from the first. Dismissing the story because it’s celebrity news, or because talking about it is publicising the existence of the pictures still further, is missing the point (and the latter verges on victim blaming).

The double standard I’m talking about of course is the unapologetically oppressive way victim blaming serves to control and restrict individual liberties, yet at the same time, those that perpetuate it so often pretend to be on the side of “freedom.”

I have free speech, cry the misogynists who like to shout at people they don’t know in the street about the shape of their bums or breasts. I have freedom of action, whine the creeps who like to grope strangers in clubs, insisting to themselves that she’s up for it even as she tries to edge away from their sad little grasping hands. I have the right to look at naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence, if I want. And if she doesn’t like it, she shouldn’t have taken them anyway. I have a right to look at them, without consequences, but she doesn’t have the right to take them in the first place, not really. Not without consequences. That is what “freedom” means, apparently.

This is just one more way that the extremely important concept of “freedom” gets hijacked by the mean and selfish, who care only for their own freedom, and not a jot from “freedom” as a concept; as a fundamental right that others, as well as themselves, are also entitled to. Only in the world of victim blaming are you entitled to hack, steal, violate, impinge upon others’ freedoms, then demand that they modify their behaviour (behaviour which impacts you in no way whatsoever) if they don’t like it. It’s just such an obvious lie.

It’s not just the prudish wankers (if you’ll excuse the pun) that ring alarm bells. There’s been a disconcerting amount of Liberal Dudes, some of them self-defined feminists, lamenting the need to be so uptight, puritanical, prudish about “nakedness.” It’s just a human body, they cry! It’s just sex! Why can’t we all chill out! Those Liberal Dudes can go sit on several pins. Feminist women are always being blamed for putting people off feminism. I say that the prevalence of Liberal Dudes is what alienates so many women from sex positive feminism. It gets associated with guys like you, blazing into discussions about consent and boundaries and privacy to bully women, sometimes by calling us outright misogynistic words like prudes or frigid, sometimes throwing around cleverer coded language like “Mary Whitehouse”, “pearl clutchers,” or “nanny state.” (Why is it always the ‘nanny’ state, a word associated with women, when the laws are overwhelmingly made by men?) You think the issue here is sex, and we can only assume that’s because you don’t know the difference between consensual sexy times and violating someone. You think when a woman says “no, I didn’t consent to this,” an acceptable response is “oh, relax, it’s just sex. Stop being so uptight. Let me liberate you.” You Liberal Dudes, you are creepy as hell. You are why sex positive feminism gets a bad name. I wonder how many of these guys would be happy for pictures of themselves fapping over the leaked photos to be posted online? I mean, it’s all just sex, right? Come on, stop being so uptight.

Here we have an impossible-to-misinterpret-unless-it-is-wilful example of the difference between sexual objectification and sex. Jennifer Lawrence expressing her own sexuality by sharing naked photos of herself with another party consensually is a sexual act. A stranger banging one out over those photos, when he knows they are not for his eyes, even after she has said “no, I didn’t consent to this”, because she’s no longer a person with rights – that’s objectification. And, in this case, potentially a sexual offence. 

Some of the victim blamers are pretending that it’s okay because Lawrence is famous, or because she’s been naked, or partially naked, in films. Some of them dress up their victim blaming as moral or intellectual superiority. They don’t care about silly celebrity gossip like this (something that seems, incidentally, to be much more frequently hurled at celebrity gossip relating to female celebrities than male ones). But this isn’t just something that happens to celebrities. This is just a celebrity experiencing something that ordinary women experience all the time – from ‘revenge porn’ to the doxxing of sex workers and trans women, this entitled attitude manifesting itself through technological means is happening to lots of people, many without expensive lawyers, and it’s not going away just because you shake your head and call famous women foolish. It’s not going away until people shout back, and make it much more socially unacceptable than it is now to violate other people’s privacy and make demands on their personal freedoms this way. 

To see just how ridiculously obvious the “freedom” double standard is, let’s take the victim blamers classic – the analogy of a sexual offence, and stolen property. (You know the one. Don’t drink, don’t get in a taxi, don’t walk home, don’t wear short skirts. It’s just good sense. After all, you wouldn’t leave a car door open/iPod on the table/wallet on display.) This logic says, if Jennifer Lawrence didn’t want the pictures hacked, she should never have taken them or stored them online. Okay. So, extending this same analogy, if you use online banking, it’s fair game for a hacker to post your bank details online – and for people who see that posting to use them. Right? If you access counselling or other confidential health support online, it’s fine for a hacker to sneak into your emails and publish the details online. If you shop online, expect credit card theft. If you gamble online, or watch porn online, or do, well, anything else online, then it’s perfectly acceptable for the details of all that information to one day be shared with your colleagues, family, friends, and several million strangers. Right?

Except that analogy never gets reversed this way, because we don’t believe other people have an entitlement to access your property or money or health records in the way we far too readily accept an entitlement to access women’s bodies. Remember that next time somebody tries to conflate their victim blaming “common sense advice” with freedom; remember the hypocritical, stark staringly obvious way it’s used to control behaviour. It’s the opposite of freedom, and anyone with any genuine concern for personal liberty in any meaningful way will never engage with it.

Unless, of course, they don’t really see women as people.

Writer Matt Crowther blogs on Robin Williams’ death, and the demons of depression

Robin Williams, depression, and demons

Guest post by Matt Crowther

“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at 5.00. It’ll be Mozart, Elvis and anyone of your choosing. Or if Heaven exists it would be nice to know there’s laughter. That would be a great thing to hear God go: “Two Jews walk into a bar.”

The above is a quote from the Q&A portion of Inside the Actor’s Studio. The opening is interviewer James Lipton and the response is Robin Williams. The late Robin Williams.

These are words that I never thought I’d type, not for twenty or more years on whatever website we would have then and not in such circumstances. My words will be the trillionth since the news broke about half midnight British time but words they are.

Like many I first saw Robin Williams when I was a kid and like many others I saw him as the lovable alien Mork who had come to Earth to find out more about life. Lucky for Mork he got to live with the smashing Mindy. Williams said on occasion that there would sometimes, often, be a bit in the script that said “Robin does his thing” and off he went; that there was a translator on set to cover every aspect of what he said and sometimes even she had no idea.

It was said on the radio today that Williams sometimes despaired that the British only ever knew him for Mork & Mindy, or seemed to: “Hey, Mork!” they’d shout. There was that joke on the Graham Norton Show where, talking about his Oscar win, he was on an emotional cloud and then next day someone shouted: “Hey, Mork, where’s Mindy!” and it brought him down with a crash.

From that sitcom (which sadly grew stale after a little while, a show that defeated Battlestar Galactica as well) I became a fan, a follower, and an admirer. There was something about this man that as a kid I latched onto. Maybe in my childhood angst, like TV characters I idolised, I saw an anchor amidst the torrent. Growing up I appreciated the man for all his talent. This is a man who came onto the aforementioned Actor’s Studio and went off on some comic tangent for so long that when Lipton says: “And so the first question” Williams falls over laughing. A man who, in that same programme, made a woman shriek from laughter so loudly even he was startled. A man who could be scarily creepy in One Hour Photo and yet warm and caring in Patch Adams (the first film to make me cry in the cinema. It’s no classic but it’s affecting) and then, yet, zany in Mrs Doubtfire.

And yet… and yet, he had his demons. They say that the archetypal comedian has his demons and that’s what shapes him or her. Tommy Cooper had them, Tony Hancock succumbed to them and many others used them for comic effect. Few proved the exception like Eric Morecambe and maybe the likes of Don Rickles. I knew like others he had his drug addiction (“I was on everything but skates”) and his alcohol addiction, and so after the initial shout of disbelief when I saw “Actor Robin Williams Found Dead” I feared his past had caught with him. Then I saw it: “apparent suicide”. Tonight it’s confirmed as death by hanging.

One can only imagine the torment that lay beneath the surface. I can make no pretensions on this. How we are publicly and how we are privately are different things. It is the height of pretension to say I share the same demons as Robin Williams and others. Yet from my own demons I have tempted to stray to that edge. Even today as I kept thinking about his death I felt the thoughts and feelings rebound in my head like endless waves. Indeed, I thought of these for a while concerning another famous man to take his own life. For a few weeks I’ve relived my childhood by watching Alias Smith & Jones. It was only of late I realised that actor Pete Duel (who played ‘Smith’, a.k.a. Hannibal Heyes) had taken his own life after battling depression. With him, it was a failing show, a stagnant career and failure in love that contributed amongst so many things. It paints a sadness…

As is the case when someone famous dies, you look back over clips of their work and the like. Last night I re-watched one of his appearances on Craig Ferguson’s show and this is what drives my sadness. The two had such rapport that Williams lacked with Letterman or Carson or even Leno. They got on like mates, they knew and fed each other’s comic effect. At a stage show that Ferguson was doing, Williams appeared to dance to Britney Spears’ Hit me Baby One More Time. You watch these clips now and look at that face. Did he, after the show, sit somewhere by himself, down and depressed? A case of being exhausted from keeping up a front? Did he lie awake with repetitive dark thoughts? Did he one day cycle across that beloved Golden Gate Bridge and wonder of jumping? No…I don’t know.

We can never know. Already the rumours circulate that it was in part down to the cancellation of his show. He leaves behind a wife who loved him, and the way he talked about his kids on Letterman for example showed a loving father. Williams had only divorced a year or so ago and so that might not have helped but he leaves his kids. Whatever demons drove him to hang himself… they were that great. One got the impression as he talked once, that he would hope to be there for his kids when they got married, when they got older and had kids of their own.

All of the while I find it unfathomable. I am one of many who liked his work, liked him in spite of his faults – who amongst us is perfect? But… it’s the damndest feeling. Numb, depressed and sad. Sad that he went this way, muddled that he went this way and all the while depressed. Like many who I liked and passed I hoped to meet him one day. That’s big-headed perhaps: what makes me special? Maybe when I finally landed in San Francisco he’d be the man I crossed the street with, I would say hello and he’d be humble, as was his way in public, and that’d be that. In my flights of fancy when my imagination soared I’d imagine him acting in something I wrote.

It’s like losing a friend. It’s silly but it is. I’ve lost a friend, almost a brother really and to this day I can’t stop thinking of him or at least on most days. And so with Robin Williams today I thought of him. It also made me think of my depression and how I often wish I just wasn’t here. Obviously I have not stepped off the platform yet but one can’t help but wonder that like him I might one day just snap and go.

His demons made him to a point. It showed in his work and it showed in his life. Growing up, I was a fan and I liked to think that I took on some of his humour. Or at least I tried to. Nowadays I tend to affect a Dylan Moran Black Books kind of thing. Damn, what pretentious dribble but that’s the case. I’ve long had this weird thought process which few if any understand. People say I’m funny but who knows. It’s down to Robin Williams I owe part of this (and Bill Murray and all the others). Down to a man who would be part of the cheer-up cure I’d seek sometimes.

Seeing the front-page of one of the tabloids today I let out an involuntary groan. You don’t expect people to die. Even James Garner the other day but dear old Garner had lived a full life. At sixty-three Robin Williams was relatively young and there was more in store.
Something I envied him was living in San Francisco. More-so when he talked of cycling out from the city across the bridge and through Marin County for miles.Envious of being able to cycle amongst that green, across that bridge and just for being there. I remember as a kid wanting to write him and saying could you get me over there?

Young dreams.

In this age we can wax lyrical on social media, we can share videos, we can go to YouTube and enjoy his heyday – the Craig Ferguson interviews, his 70s/80s stand-up routines, the Comic Relief shows with Billy Crystal – or watch one of his finest films. As it happens, by quirky coincidence, Good Morning Vietnam was already pencilled in for a re-watch on Sunday. This reminds me of when James Garner died, and just days earlier I’d made a mental note to re-watch Grand Prix. Eeerie.)

And so, he’ll never be forgotten. Like his best friend Christopher Reeve. Certainly, I will remember him – and as I do, I’ll desperately hope not to picture in my mind those last moments. Yet I will batter on through the waves that are the dark thoughts and suicidal moments of my own. I’ll do so until either I triumph or I fail. In such terms I tend to live my life.

Even now, after what seems an age since the news broke, I find myself hoping it’s a bad dream. People were concerned for me, knowing my empathy for the man, but they shouldn’t have been. For one, it paints me out as a fanboy but also, what does it say about me? That my depression is such that the death of a man who I never met, and could never have met, has such an impact?

What it says about my friends is that they care and worry. But demons aren’t that easy to rid. Sometimes I think I need those dark thoughts and feelings. Most of the time I don’t know of a life without them.

We’ll miss Robin Williams. In the end that is more than enough for a man who touched so many.

Quick points on the ‘degrees of rapes’ argument and why it matters


1. “But some rapes are worse than others! It’s a fact! They’re not all the same!”

“Rape is rape” does not mean every single rape in the world is identical. No-one is arguing this. In fact, the whole point is that they are all unique, and traumatic for complicated, individual reasons that go far beyond whether you know your rapist or not. Generalised distinctions don’t just get people emotional because they hurt our little feelings. They get slapped down because they are inaccurate, and painfully simplistic. Grouping together all date rapes, or all stranger rapes, and rating the ‘severity’ based on whichever label they fall into is about as helpful as grouping together all rapes by somebody in a purple jumper and all rapes by somebody in blue trainers. It is unhelpful because it’s simply not the reality of how rape happens or why it is wrong.

The knee jerk assumption that we can measure the severity of the rape by the relationship between the perpetrator and the survivor doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The history of rape as a property crime, a crime against a woman’s sexual innocence or honour, can be seen floating around us all the time like a ghost, in everything from law to public dialogue. We see it every time somebody compares getting raped to having your house burgled, or wearing a miniskirt and getting drunk to leaving a car door open.

Some stabbings are no doubt worse than others for different victims, and no two stabbings are identical. If I stabbed someone I knew, it wouldn’t hurt them less because it was a “friend stabbing” or an “after dinner stabbing.” It’s a stabbing. They’re just as stabbed whether I have dinner with them first or not. Besides, I’d never tell a stabbing victim that their stabbing wasn’t as a bad as someone else’s. Why would I? Who would that help?

The worst thing about obsessing over rape distinctions is that it stops survivors uniting and supporting each other. It ties my hope of justice to proving that your rape wasn’t as bad.

2. “But I’m objective! I’m being logical and you raised your voice, therefore I’m right.”

My favourite thing about this argument is that it’s a massive logical fallacy. Why does getting passionate about a subject make you factually incorrect? If I shout 1+1=2 at the top of my voice, angrily, that doesn’t make it suddenly equal 3.

No-one is truly objective. Everyone has skin in the game. Declaring yourself to be the objective party is not only the height of arrogance, it’s also very often a sign of lack of knowledge. Objectivity, particularly on subjects like violence against women, usually shapes itself into conclusions and opinions, with expertise and experience. Richard Dawkins is not objective about whether God exists. He is not objective about evolutionary biology. He has looked into these things as a scientist and come to conclusions. He is able to be ‘objective’ about rape because, it seems, he is not an expert.

Open your mind to this. If experts in a particular subject repeatedly tell you that you’re wrong and/or offensive, there’s a possibility that the problem doesn’t lie with their inability to understand your highly sophisticated logic, but rather with the logical premise you’re working from in the first place.

Besides, as far as logic goes, no-one ever actually says all rapes are exactly the same. No-one is saying the criminal sentencing for every single rape in the world should always be identical. Bravely knocking down a point no-one has made while ignoring the points people have made is a straw argument. This is not logical.

3. Priorities and tone

So I have a question for Dawkins fans. How come it’s okay for Dawkins to be rude, aggressive, and emotional, but if people respond, even if they respond with facts and reason, they get called hysterical?

Telling rape survivors who feel triggered because you’ve just validated silencing techniques their abusers used against them to “go away and learn how to think” is, apart from anything else, unbelievably rude. It just is. Why do it? What’s the matter with you? Dawkins fanboys always seem to be the first to have tantrums about feminists and other social justice campaigners being rude to them. I was so supportive of feminism, they cry, until you took that tone with me, and, well, if you want to push people away, then this is the right way to go about it. It’s almost as if manners aren’t applicable to everyone in the same way; as if manners are only ever demanded when playing respectability politics to control or silence people.

Dawkins and his fanboys are also very into their priorities. “Is this really the most important thing you have to think about? What about FGM? What about women’s magazines? What about babies starving? What about poverty? What about Westboro Baptist Church? What about everything else except the thing you happen to be discussing right now?”

This crap is always thrown up whenever social justice campaigners say, well, anything. Why are the likes of Dawkins given license to casually throw out cliches about rape to make a hypothetical point? Why is it okay for him to talk about trivial bollocks every day of the week without it undermining anything else he might have to say? Come now, why the double standard?

Babies are starving in the world, Dick! Why are you tweeting about different kinds of rape! Is this really the most important thing you have to think about?

4. “It was an analogy! He wasn’t focusing on rape, he was just using it to make a logical point!”

That’s not better. In fact, that’s kind of the point. He’s using rape as an analogy, to make a hypothetical point, without bothering to understand the context to what he’s saying, without bothering to be respectful to survivors, without bothering to make sure he isn’t perpetuating rape myths that actively hinder justice. Rape is just a word to him, a word like any other, that he drops into his reasoning to make a point about something else, something he actually considers important.

If you don’t want to talk about rape, if you don’t want to listen to, or even be polite to survivors, if you don’t recognise criminologists, lawyers, or sexual violence experts as more knowledgable about this subject than you, then don’t talk about it.

5. “You’re taking it out of context.”

No, actually, you are. I’m taking it in context. Here is my context.

When PETA drew analogies between the Holocaust and the meat trade, they intended it as a simple analogy. But the context to human rights abuses like the Holocaust is that the humans being abused were routinely compared to animals in order to justify it. The analogy may or may not make some logical sense, but the context renders it profoundly unpleasant.

Not everybody noticed why it was problematic at first. Some felt it but couldn’t quite articulate why. It took representatives of the Jewish community to explain that discomfort, because they are experts on the historical and current context.

Rape Crisis know more about why survivors don’t report their rapes than you do. Criminologists know more about the psychology of rape than you do. Feminist historians know more about the historical context to our laws and language than you do. They’re not ‘objective.’ They’re experts.

And rape survivors know more about how painful rape is than you do.

There is more to being an authoritative voice on the world than repeating rudimentary logic from one angle. There’s also history, and context, and just because you’re an expert in one area, like biological science, it doesn’t make you an authority on everything else.

Anyway, failing the ability to grasp all of that, there’s also such a thing as basic human decency. Not so much “go away and learn how to think”‘ as “go away and learn how to be a person.”

What happens to Labour if ex-Lib Dems vote Green?

The week that Ed Miliband made his speech about being less photogenic than David Cameron, the Green Party announced a new economic policy: a wealth tax, affecting around 300,000 people, of 1-2%. This tax would only fall upon people with over £3m, making it difficult for those who oppose it to obfuscate with philosophical questions about who we can legitimately consider rich and thin ends of wedges and where do we draw lines. There may be a debate to be had about all of that, but whether you define ‘rich’ in terms of capacity to buy things, comparative living standards, whether you measure it by median wealth or by mean, it’s really beyond argument that £3m places you firmly in the ‘rich’ box.

The objective of policies like this is often not so much a matter of putting them into practice (I doubt the Greens are expecting to win a full parliamentary majority any time soon) but to flush out your opponents and lead them into a trap.

I’ve written before about why I’m not convinced that the 50p rate of tax is much of a solution to inequality, but if it was intended as a political trap for the Tories, as I suspect (cynically perhaps) that it was, then it worked beautifully. As soon as Miliband declared he would bring it back, the likes of Philip Blond were denouncing it as an attack on “average” hard-working families. They were either trying to spin the policy’s impact in a dishonest way, or they actually think £150,000 a year is an “average” income.

Similarly, the Green Party’s wealth tax may not make a huge difference to inequality either way (the rate of tax people are supposed to be paying is somewhat irrelevant if they don’t pay it) but it flushes out the worst logic against progressive taxation, and highlights the ridiculous extent to which it can be taken. We hear arguments that a wealth tax will disincentivise hard work. Because having £3m minus 1% is just peanuts, a totally demotivating low wage. Who would ever work for that, right? Never mind the fact that the second part of this argument is usually that these people have such high earnings in the first place because they have such a strong work ethic.

Around the time the Green Party was publishing its wealth tax proposal, former Labour leader Tony Blair was making jokes to the think tank Progress about the exact number of millions he is worth. That he believes the difference between £100m and £20m is significant enough to be worth correcting, that he thinks it’s funny to laugh, self-deprecatingly, at only having £20m, tells us a lot about the former Labour prime minister and the circles he moves in. Perhaps it also tells us something about the Labour Party; or rather, it reminds us of something about them. It reminds us of one reason why the British public grew slowly more and more sickened by the hypocritical smell of money sloshing around the same people who lectured us about morals and values and British citizenship every day of the week.

Labour has been rightly nervous about losing some of their more traditional Labour voters to Ukip, but they must not forget that the core of their strategy has been based on the presumption that the bulk of the disgruntled Lib Dems who turned to them in 2010 will stick with Labour into 2015. To get the majority they need, they are dependent on winning enough votes from those disgruntled Lib Dems to push them over the mark. That is a group of voters often mocked but not to be taken for granted, electorally speaking. These are people with strong values, who would often much rather vote for a small party that reflects those values, than vote tactically for the biggest party able to ‘keep the Tories out’. In other words, these are people who would very seriously consider voting Green in a general election.

The Labour Party needs to do more than just not be the Tories or the Lib Dems to secure those voters. Firstly, it needs to show it takes seriously human rights and civil liberties. These aren’t abstract philosophical concepts to be discussed over brandy on a rainy day to Lib Dems; they are central grounding principles which underpin everything else, from foreign affairs to welfare reforms, from policing to economics. Making Sadiq Khan shadow justice secretary is a good move but it may not be enough to win the trust of yellow voters, particularly given Labour’s pretty sour record on civil liberties.

Secondly, Lib-Dems-in-refuge and other potential Green voters will be looking for meaningful commitments on electoral and constitutional reform. Modernising the House of Lords is a policy area which sounds abstract and irrelevant to many, but is in fact essential to making any sort of real progress in all kinds of areas: education reform, welfare spending, and the right to die are all heavily influenced by the makeup of the upper house.

And thirdly – which is where the Green Party’s wealth tax comes in – former Lib Dem voters want to see fairer taxes, although not necessarily higher taxes. That’s something Nick Clegg likes saying because it sounds universally lovely yet it’s vague enough to mean more or less anything you want it to. But the sentiment underneath is actually an important point of principle for many Lib Dem voters. Many people don’t want taxes put up for the sake of it, but do want a modern tax system that reflects the disparity of wealth in the country, reflects wealth rather than income, and applies the same rationale for taxation to everyone.

Our tax system feels extremely outdated, with an entire scale of different bands up until £150,000 a year, and then from that point on, a flat rate of tax whether you earn £200,000, £1m or £50m. And that’s even if you ‘earn’ it in the way that Tony Blair is ‘worth’ £20m.

Just as the Tories managed to successfully tap into the lack of sympathy among people struggling to pay for a bigger mortgage towards council tenants with allegedly ‘spare’ bedrooms, and just as they managed to tap into the lack of sympathy for striking public sector workers among private sector workers with no pensions, the same populist attitude exists towards many left-wing policies. Politicians may very likely find that the majority of the public – be they unemployed or minimum wage workers, families earning £55,000 between them, and even many of those with twice that – will struggle to muster an enormous amount of sympathy for people whose wealth reaches into multiples of millions claiming they’re no longer motivated to bother working their hardest because they’ve been asked to pay an additional 1% in tax.

The Green Party might not be a huge electoral force, and they might not be all over the news in the way Ukip has been, but they could still win over enough ex-Lib Dems and disillusioned Labour voters to keep Labour from nailing down that nervously held together majority that they so keenly need to get back into power. Ed Miliband should spend less time making speeches about how he’s so much above the trivialities of politics, and get on with behaving like he’s a future progressive Labour prime minister, with a competent grasp on the severities of it.

Forced treatment for depression is beyond satire

Last year, Tory MP Gavin Barwell won a heap of praise from all shades of political colour for pushing parliamentary legislation to challenge mental health stigma.

Yet the disparity between the medical experts’ approach the complexities of mental health and the way politicians, job centres, fitness-for-work examiners, and other non-medical professionals approach this issue is still enormous, and no-one seems particularly fussed. Mental health stigma as experienced by Clarke Carlisle or Alistair Campbell, while important and terrible, is rather different than the stress, trauma, and in some cases suicides that are increasingly associated with work capability assessments and the removal of benefits for people with mental health problems.

Fast forward to July 2014 and we see that those same Tories have a brand-spanking new policy idea on what they deem “treatable” mental illnesses: for benefits to be taken away from claimants who “refuse” treatment for depression – and by treatment, the  example they give is CBT.

Tory MP and former GP Sarah Wollaston has tweeted that the idea is a “no brainer” and is “doomed to fail.” She went on to add: “When I said it’s a no brainer I mean this unethical unworkable kite flying comes from someone with #NoBrain.” Hmm, I wonder who she means…

As a doctor, Wollaston understands medical ethics and the inherent problems in forced treatment better than some of her colleagues might. She also presumably understands illness, treatment, cure, and all the messy nuances that go alongside each.

Depression (which I’m focusing on here because it’s the main illness singled out as “treatable” by the “senior Tory” who is quoted in the Daily Telegraph about the policy idea) is complex and unpredictable. It can be sporadic, uncontrollable, sometimes fatal. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works well for some people, some of the time, but it is not right for everybody and even when it “works”, it’s hardly a permanent cure – it’s more like just one way of mitigating some of the most painful symptoms that the illness brings.  Politicians are not doctors.

But this policy idea isn’t just an ethical issue from a health perspective. It is yet another policy designed to “get people back to work” which focuses entirely on changing the attitude or behaviour of the potential employee, and changing nothing about employment practices. If you want people battling depression to work full time you need to put pressure on employers to actively challenge discrimination in their employment practices, and actively make sure their workplaces suitably accommodate people with depression.

The real irony of these proposals is that in many parts of the country, NHS mental health support and treatment is under-resourced, almost to a point of devastation. Many people are desperate for treatment and are made to wait months and months. Often when support does come, it’s in the form of group therapy, with strangers – hardly a safe environment. I have one friend who, despite being suicidal, had to stop attending his sessions the first time around because the social setting quite unsurprisingly triggered his anxiety – and because, well, who wants to discuss things like abuse, phobias, or sexual inadequacy with a bunch of strangers? Certainly not people who suffer from extreme social phobias and anxieties.

I can’t help but wonder how common it is to force people with physical conditions to share the details with strangers, in order to access support or treatment? I am thinking of the complexities of people’s lives and wondering how private, let alone how specialist, these forced CBT sessions will be? Could a rape survivor be forced to discuss their PTSD and depressive episodes with victim-blamers in the room? Could LGB sufferers of depression be forced to discuss their personal feelings of self-worth with homophobes? Could trans people suffering from depression be forced to talk about their experience of the world with transphobes?

And, perhaps the most ridiculous thing of all: this policy is ostensibly about saving money. Years ago the Mental Health Foundation published a great piece of research which showed that costs associated with mental health are overwhelmingly connected to lack of early support and poor preventative measures; a reluctance to invest in public health when it comes to our minds the way we do when it comes to, say, smoking or obesity.

Cuts to SEN specialists and teaching assistants in schools, cuts to local authority budgets, cuts to the police force, cuts to hospitals, cuts in social services, cuts in support for people with mental illnesses and for their carers, cuts in housing benefit all have a knock-on impact on how quickly mental health issues can be identified and addressed. The expense, says the Mental Health Foundation, comes when people reach their crisis point in a way which could have been mitigated or even avoided, had they been supported earlier on. The idea that the government has suddenly had a light bulb moment, after decimating the very services that help people manage or avoid their mental health crisis point, that, actually, support and treatment might also be a good idea, is quite frankly beyond satire.

Saatchi gallery sale of assault paintings: separating the art from the artist?

Whenever a talented artist turns out to be a supremely terrible human being, we, the consumers of their talent, are always invited to ‘separate the person from the art.’

Sometimes it’s easy enough. You can like Wagner’s music without his anti-semitism getting in the way of the rise and fall of a particular melody. Other times it is less easy. Woody Allen, who has had to deny sexually abusing his stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, has a film advert plastered all over the tube. The title is Fading Gigolo. The tagline is: ‘the worlds oldest profession just got older.’ This feels, well, less than helpful for anyone trying to separate the person from the art, so they can carry on enjoying Allen’s films in peace. And other times, such as the newly revealed paintings on sale via Charles Saatchi’s online gallery, depicting his assault on Nigella Lawson, it is plain impossible.

So what exactly are these distinctions we so judiciously make as we choose what to look at, listen to, or purchase? Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna prompted a tsunami of panicked debates about the so-called culture of misogyny in hiphop and R&B; I wonder if we will now see a proportionate debate about the culture of misogyny in art?

Damien Udaiyan, one of several artists who painted the assault, says his piece is supposed to be about Saatchi’s assault, but also a “comment about the art market, and how people control it.” Fair enough, although he’s selling it via Saatchi’s site for £5,870 – or, as I call it, 13 months’ rent – and the site gets a 30% commission. Perhaps that’s some other clever comment on the art market and the powerful people who control it.

In fact, artistic markets, critics, and canons alike have long treated women as objects not agents, and the market in general has long treated women as commodities or accessories to split a profit on, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Charles Saatchi, both successful artist and successful capitalist, would be able to profit from the commodification of his own assault on Lawson.

What perhaps should be surprising, though – or at least noteworthy – is that there are people who would purchase these pieces, allowing Saatchi to profit from his actions; indeed, that there are actually people who want to look at those pictures at all. But perhaps they are not for looking at; perhaps they are collectors’ items, to gather dust and financial value. Perhaps they are all about business, and nothing to do with beauty. What, then, is art even for?

At some point, it is not enough to just say that we are separating the art from the person. When somebody is profiting from the art, when it is reflecting a particular world view, when it is explicitly about more than just beauty for its own sake, then at some point we must ask: what is this for? What role does art play in forming our cultural norms, in how we intellectualise beauty?

Richard Dawkins got himself into a bit of a scrap on Twitter recently for disputing whether Shakespeare’s being white and male should be taken into account when weighing up his place in the literary canon. I adore Shakespeare but of course it matters if the art we take for granted as ‘the best’ validates and reflects one dominant experience more so than all others. Art validates our humanity. It tells us who we are.

We are fooling ourselves if we believe we are always able to separate the art from the person. We are fooling ourselves if we think it’s a coincidence that Saatchi is able to profit from his attack on Lawson, that fellow artists have chosen to sell it specifically via his site, that we are meant to feel sympathy for Othello when Desdemona is killed, that we trust Woody Allen’s portrayal of humanity to be objectively truthful. What are we looking at, exactly, when we look at a picture of Lawson’s traumatised, scared face, painted and sold for £5,870? Now: what is the value of it?

 

‘Political correctness’ is about listening, not speaking

I find myself increasingly frustrated by established writers like Nick Cohen writing again and again on so-called ‘political correctness’, equating it with a top-down controlling approach to language, when in fact it is very often the opposite.

What I often see when people talk about ‘political correctness’ is the democratisation of language. The ‘objective’ consensus that existed before the days of ‘PC gone mad’ about what is and isn’t acceptable or offensive, where did that come from, if not the educated ‘establishment’? The top-down slurs used to dehumanise and devalue entire groups of people, where do those words come from, if not the ‘establishment’? When the charity MIND responded to Cohen’s most recent anti-political correctness article on the subject of mental health slurs, they stressed the fact that their language objections and suggestions come not from political types or academics, but from all sorts of ordinary people that they work with. Asking well-paid high profile media professionals to listen to the voices of those people is the very opposite of a top-down imposition from the ‘political class.’

Nick Cohen also explicitly makes the argument that using respectful language about anybody with mental health problems is what softens the public up to the cuts to services or benefits. The idea that people with mental illnesses were treated better before the days of respectful language is so bizarre it is bleakly amusing. You don’t need to look back as far as the Victorians to see that this is false. Over the last century there has been, broadly speaking, consistent positive improvements in terms of how we approach mental health which correlates almost directly with the work done by groups like MIND. That work includes campaigns around language – not just discussing which words we ‘can’ say or write, but all of us together re-evaluating the way we think. Dehumanising language is problematic because it’s an expression of dehumanising thinking, and far from ‘political correctness’ leading to less humane policies, history would suggest that the best way to justify inhumane policy is to first dehumanise the necessary groups – using language.

Besides, isn’t what Cohen says he advocates here just as much a case of ‘political correctness’ as what MIND advocates? He argues that we should use x or y terminology to justify government spending on mental health. That argument is either disingenuous or else he’s come so far round full circle that he’s forgotten what his original point was (that those on high shouldn’t dictate language for political reasons). Either way, he seems, along with far too many others, to have given up on challenging the underlying reasons why anyone should resign themselves to being dependent on ‘charity’ in the first place. Benevolent charity from on high is arguably much more of an imposition by the ‘political class’ than asking people to check their language.

And the reason why such a societal model is problematic is evidenced by Cohen’s own message to MIND: don’t you dare criticise the way people treat you or speak about you, because they could withdraw their oh-so-generous ‘charity’ any time. It codes it into our social and economic DNA that inequality is inevitable, that power disparities are inevitable. It isn’t true. And when we start to talk about, say, people with mental illnesses in language that implies difference not inferiority or weakness, we begin to ask questions about those power structures. We begin to ask that employers make an effort to accommodate various types of mental illness. We begin to ask that transport providers make an effort to accommodate various types of physical disability. We begin to ask how much of that ‘inevitable’ inequality is down to stigma, prejudice, greed and inflexibility on the part of society’s institutions, rather than something innate which we must all accept. How much of the social isolation that can go alongside mental illness – which can, in turn, be connected to other inequalities from housing to imprisonment rates – could be mitigated by breaking down stereotypes and slurs?

Reshaping the way we value each other, reshaping the things we believe to be central to each other’s humanity and the things we don’t, reshaping our priorities, those things should be central to tackling mental health inequality – all inequality. The real irony that so many miss when getting upset about what they can or cannot say or write anymore is that at the root of what is fashionable to call ‘political correctness’ the point isn’t to say or write anything at all, but to listen to each other.